A safe space for ‘sad girl’ music fans: Inside Electric Fetus’ boygenius listening party

People sit on the floor of a record store
Sophia McQuillan (left) and Ellie Lazarchic, who are fans of boygenius, react to the indie supergroup’s new album "the record" during a listening session at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

As it nears 4 p.m., the record section at Electric Fetus in Minneapolis swells with attendees in classic “sad girl” music garb: Dr. Martens, tote bags, femme energy and heavy eyeliner are on display. This is a safe space… that’s how those in the room describe it. 

The speakers come on and the first song from the album “the record” by boygenius — the supergroup created by Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus — begins playing. Hands grip tighter around each other and tears begin to fall. It’s the moment they’ve all been waiting for.

Ellie Lazarchic, 17, and Sophia McQuillan, 15, were in attendance with Ellie’s mom, Jennifer.

When the music first started, Ellie said she was stunned. “We held hands, we weren’t ready. They just casually started it,” she said.

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Sophia sent Ellie the Instagram post about the event and they agreed — they had to be there. 

“Yeah, this was happening no matter what,” Sophia said about attending. 

A record album cover is displayed next to a turntable
The new album from boygenius, "the record," sits on display at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis during a listening session on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Listening parties have been around for decades, said Jim Novak, music buyer at Electric Fetus. Some are held in secret, like Taylor Swift’s 2019 release of her album “Lover.”

Others might be at a party with the artist and other industry insiders. Although the pandemic made in-person musical gatherings nearly impossible three years ago, Novak said they’re now seeing a resurgence.

Bands and labels are working with local record stores to host listening parties, scheduled at the same time in every city across the globe. And both sides benefit from the deal: Fans get to experience new music a few days early and get access to free and exclusive merch, and the music industry — labels and stores both — can advertise to the audience with a fan-centric experience. It’s a win-win. 

“Everywhere in the world, people are experiencing the music at the same time. It just adds to that sense of community. It builds that relationship with the artist and the fans all feel like they’re experiencing something together,” Novak said.

A man hands out a band poster in a record store
Jim Novak hands out posters to boygenius fans before a listening session at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Recent listening parties at Electric Fetus have included artists such as Lana Del Ray, Paramore and Fall Out Boy. 

Novak said Tuesday’s boygenius party topped them all with the largest crowd. For many, it was the first time they have ever been to an event like this. 

“It is a good way to connect with other fans of the artist and have a good time … the idea of hearing [the album] early is fun and makes you feel special,” Beth Tompkins said. 

This all comes at a time when concert ticket prices are on rise. Earlier this year, large entertainment company Ticketmaster drew intense ire and scrutiny after fans were priced out of massive concert experiences to see mega-stars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has led the fight against the company in Congress. 

“A lot of these high fees are going on because there is no incentive for fair prices and superior offerings and innovation if you’re the only company in town,” she said in an interview with NPR.

Listening sessions, meanwhile, offer a similar musical experience at no charge. Novak says it’s also changing how fans socialize and increasing vinyl records more than ever before. 

“Having a piece of physical media, it’s kind of like having a band t-shirt or things like that. But you get to experience the art over and over again, on demand for yourself … It's more physical, it's more intense, because you actually do have to listen to it.”

And with a room of over 150 people, it’s clear fans feel the same way. 

Records sit on display in a record store
Albums sit on display in the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis during a listening session on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Carly Michalkiewicz, Calli Hadler and Kate Maiers were decked out in boygenius merch and waiting for the session to begin around 3:30 p.m. It’s a classic fan friendship: Hadler and Maiers met at a Phoebe Bridgers concert and stayed in touch. Hadler and Michalkiewicz both attend the University of Minnesota, where they bonded in a hallway over a Phoebe Bridgers T-shirt.

Hadler said, “Oh my god, I love your shirt. I have the same one.” 

Six months later they mirror the supergroup: A trio that has bonded over their love of music and womanhood. 

“It just makes me happy seeing a bunch of women coming together for a work of art created by three women, and queer women. It makes me excited to have a space for us,” Michalkiewicz said. “An area where we can all hold hands and be happy with the music and find a safe space to appreciate the same art.”

They each said they always have a “visceral” reaction when they hear songs for the first time they’ve been waiting for. Ahead of the album's March 31 debut, boygenius released four singles. Fans knew what to expect, and many shared that they were prepared to cry. 

People stand beneath speakers in a record store
Fans listen to "the record," many preparing to cry, on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

That includes Hadler, who quickly got emotional hearing the third song on the album entitled “Emily I’m Sorry,” about a relationship that seems to be coming apart. 

“I just think about all the mistakes you can make, you can try so hard to have a good relationship with someone that just doesn’t work out and it’s really sad, and it can be your own fault,” she said.

As the event ended, fans went to the check-out area and pre-order the album, notably on vinyl. They debriefed on the session, heads nodding profusely and tears drying up. Many have plans to relisten Friday evening, headphones in, alone in their rooms, lights off and vulnerability on full blast.

But the takeaway, after the first listen? 

“I’m a changed person,” Michalkiewicz said.